Ige Ramos circa 2015 (Photo by Ocs Alvarez for FOOD Magazine); a book he authored about Cavite cuisine
Culture Books

Book designer Ige Ramos on why the best book designs aren’t always the ones you’ll notice

This born-and-bred Caviteño may be a multi-awarded food writer and book designer, but admits his first ever book design project more than 30 years ago was a complete failure. By DATU SHARIFF PENDATUN
ANCX | Jun 28 2020

“Buen provecho! Comi ya nisos, mga buen comida Chabacano de Cavite.” 

This was Ige Ramos’s dedication in my copy of his book, Republic of Taste: The Untold Stories of Cavite Cuisine. A few years ago, I asked him to help me trace one of my roots in Cavite. My mom’s father was born in San Roque, a centuries-old Cavite town that’s home to the Spanish creole culture known as Chabacano. Having grown up in San Roque, Ramos identifies with its nuanced traditions, and through spirited stories and conversations, he’s helped me maintain a connection with our shared heritage. 

In the book, Ramos tells us of local historian Puring Ballesteros and her thoughts on food.  According to her, “what makes Cavite cuisine unique is the logical pairing of dishes or ulam that is terno-terno (perfect pairing) and tono-tono (in tune).” I grew up hearing of terno-terno from my mother, and I simply assumed that everyone else related to food in the same way. While pairing one dish with another is not peculiar to the Caviteño-Chabacano table, the thought and effort put into making sure that things go well together is a very enjoyable feature.

Ramos elaborates by providing us with mouthwatering examples: “A nutty dish like kare-kare should be paired with the sour and savory adobong baboy at manok sa atsuete and a side dish, like the sour kilawin na papaya sa miso, lapay at membrillo… Sinigang na bangus is paired with ukoy, while the sinigang sa bayabas is paired with binagoongang baboy.”

Known as “Ige” to Filipino foodies and literati, Guillermo Ramos is a gentleman of many talents. The books he has designed are among the most noteworthy books on Philippine food published in recent memory: Asia Society’s Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine, historian Felice P. Sta. Maria’s The Governor General’s Kitchen, and Maranao scholar Assad Baunto’s Manga Tutul a Palapa: Recipes and Memories from Ranao. In recognition of his craft, Ramos has won the National Book Award for Best Book Design thrice.

As a writer, he has contributed to several publications such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Bandera, ABS-CBN’s FOOD Magazine, and currently, to ANCX. He has proven his mettle in the field by winning the Doreen G. Fernandez Food Writing Awards two times. Aside from his work in design and letters, Ramos is likewise accomplished in the field of digital art.

Ige Ramos during ECQ

His career, three decades’ worth of art, designs, and essays, is thus terno-terno and tono-tono. Ramos’s work is a confluence of disciplines, paired and tuned. Without art and design to help express and enhance text, it would be just that—words. With Ramos’s play with complements and counterpoints, he invites us to savor the pleasures of palette and palate. 

Four years ago, I asked him to wear his book designer hat for this interview; we’ve updated it since. 

 

Q. How did you start out as a book designer?

A. I started as an apprentice when I was training with the late Ray Albano at the Museum Office of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. There was a program for student artists called the CCP Student Artist Workshop and CCP Summer Artist Workshop.

I was already in my second year at the UST College of Architecture and Fine Arts, but I didn’t get the intellectual or creative stimulus there, so after school, I would go to CCP and do odd jobs like darkroom assistant and doing errands to the printing press. It was an exciting time for me because I was stimulated and my imagination soared, considering I was only doing menial work. 

I was 17 years old then when I was thrown into the deep end. I was made one of the assistants of Mr. Albano (he has so many assistants, one for each project he is into), helping design sets and posters for the Gantimpala Theater and the CCP Museum. Computers or software didn’t exist then, everything was done manually and composing lines of words was obtained from letter transfer or from a set foundry, which had to be composed by hand. It was all analog. Letterpress and offset lithography was the only medium that time. Apple computers and Postscript technology were 10 years away and email and the Internet would be another 15 to 20 years before everybody had it.

I finally worked at the CCP as a founding staff member of the Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino in 1987 and became a regular employee of the Cultural Center of the Philippines post EDSA Revolution. I was the department’s in-house graphic designer and I made myself familiar with the works of scholars, artists, and cultural workers. I did all sorts, like maps, exhibition design, caption boards, exhibit posters, and brochures. But I felt I was still undertrained at 24 years old. The opportunities for training were few and far between or even non-existent. I read up and studied on my own.

The first book I designed was Diwa: Buhay, Ritwal at Sining – Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino, a monograph that was supposed to accompany the exhibit. It was a complete disaster because there were so many typographical errors. 

No one at that time was familiar with book production protocols. I wasn’t supervised properly and wasn’t trained or knew editorial workflow. The blame fell on me. I wasn’t fired but was heavily reprimanded. I wanted to kill myself because I felt I was a total failure. Eventually, there was a budget for a reprint; my bosses then sat down and rectified all the mistakes and the second edition was printed.

 

Q. You’ve designed some of the more relevant books on Philippine food the past years. How important is a book’s design? Is design more important for books on food?

A. Design is a very important component in a book. Design helps organize the information in a book. Design doesn’t happen all at once and there’s no formula. Design defines the DNA of the book. The DNA is the unique quality of the book that sets it apart from the other books. 

It is the design that defines its target audience. How you position the book in the market; who reads it? How much it costs, etc. 

Design is not a decoration. Its function is to organize information and the designer’s duty is to make the book readable by choosing the appropriate typeface, its correct weight and size, and the hierarchy of information, from headlines to body text; every text should be well-defined. This applies not just on books about food or cookbooks but books in general. A well-designed book does not scream or shout. The reader shouldn’t see the design but feel it. The design should just be in the background and help the reader navigate the pages. 

In the case of cookbooks, the photos, colors, text should all be made palatable yet understated that the design delivers the message without any obstacle to the reader.

Q. You mentioned that a book’s design is what defines the target audience. Would a book’s design be defined by the preferences/proclivities of the audience as well? Do you consider the perceived preferences of the target demographic too in the design process?  

A. The target audience defines the book’s direction in terms of editorial and design, while the publisher has a say in pricing and distribution. Publishing is after all a business and driven by profit. Case in point is the 250-peso, soft-cover cookbook in Pilipino or English, printed in newsprint, e.g. The Alba Cookbook, compared to Felice Sta. Maria’s The Governor-Generals Kitchen, which is printed on nice paper, in hard-cover and retails at P1,450. The target audience of these books are clearly well-defined. The former, would be a fast-seller (or best-seller), reprinted many times, in editions, while the latter is a slow-burner that will eventually become a classic or a major tome or reference material. But one thing is common, both underwent the same design process, computer system, time, and resources. 

Q. With all the books published and printed in the Philippines, would you say that there is such a thing as a Philippine book design aesthetic? 

A. That’s quite a difficult question to answer. When I was designing the first edition of Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine, there was a lively debate on what design direction to take. Design isn't only concerned with the physical attribute of the book like desired paper stock, binding style, and the choice of fonts. It also includes photography, which constitutes more than 50% of the book’s palatability (pardon the pun). Before I was taken on board in the project, the principal photography was already completed as it was sponsored by two major food companies. 

Unfortunately, the publisher and the project’s major proponents rejected the photographs. This recalls what defines Filipino food in terms of presentation and aesthetics. The photographs in question were using palayokikat placemats and coconut shell sandok with bamboo handles as props and these were repeated in all the dishes featured in the book. 

The question is, do these props add to the integrity of the image that makes the food more authentic or, was their function only a decorative one? When we had our final editorial and design meeting, prior to the reshoot, we (the publisher, editor, chefs, photographer, food stylist, and the art director) all agreed that the focus of the photography was the cooked food and its primary ingredients, because no amount of native/ethnic props can save the image. The resulting photographs were stunning, true to form, and highlighted the ingredients. Placing them on a white plate helped retain the integrity of the image. 

Can being minimal or using less elements attribute a design to Philippine design aesthetic, when in fact, we are known for our design excesses (or lack of) and suffer from horror vacui or kenophobia or fear of empty spaces? 

Another element that I adhere to in executing my design is the use of appropriate typeface. I have discovered that South American design fonts lend themselves well to Philippine-themed book design projects, perhaps, because of “hispanidad” or shared cultural identity, especially in the Hispanized areas in the country. After all, it was the Spanish who introduced the Latin alphabet, resulting in the destruction of our written binary phonetic forms like the ambahanbaybayin, and the alibata.

 

Q. What’s the last book you designed?

A. The last book I designed was Talang Buhay ng Supremo Andres Bonifacio sa Kabite, a new book published by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) that makes public the manuscripts in the handwriting of General and First President Emilio Aguinaldo about the days of the Supremo in Cavite. 

I’m also currently working on three books that are due in August and September: Transpacific Engagements: Trade, Translation, and Visual Culture of Entangled Empires (1565-1898) published by the Ayala Foundation, Inc., Getty Research Institute, and Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz (Max-Planck-Institut); The Art of Pagdiriwang: Filipino Celebratory Expressions in Food Catering, Service and Milieu published by the Food Caterers Association of the Philippines; and Appetite for Freedom: The Recipes of Maria Y. Orosa with Essays on her Life and Work. Aside from being the creative director, I’m also a publisher, under my company, IRDS Books-Republic of Taste Food Network. 

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What have you learned between your first book and the last book you designed?

We’ve seen a lot of development in technology, taste, reading, and buying habits, in book production and consumption in the last 32 years, from 1988 when I designed my first book to the present, in 2020. It helped that I started at the bottom of the food chain doing all the ground work and worked my way up learning other aspects in publishing, not just design but editorial work as well. Having a physical design office in Makati and Intramuros in the late 90s until 2010 enabled me to work with a team and develop efficient workflow from concept, design, production to fulfillment. And after that, being an editor-in-chief of a consumer service publication for a high-end supermarket enabled me to listen to the market demands and learning to be more mindful in curating content. 

Even with the advent of the new normal due to the pandemic, the old way of creating and producing books still holds to this day. The discipline of design, sound and innovative concept, attention to detail, efficient workflow, are still the essential requirements for a book to be successful. Every book is unique and there’s no formula for a successful design. That’s why it’s a struggle for me to produce a book because you really have to protect yourself from expensive and damaging mistakes—it can be very cruel. So I would suffer now and reap the benefits of the emotional and mental investment later.